Meet Our Heroes
At our Children's every child receives world-class care, from our youngest, littlest patients to our oldest, tallest patients. With “Meet Our Heroes” Cleveland Clinic Children’s is able to spotlight our bravest patients and most compassionate caregivers. Highlighting their successes and contributions affirms our commitment to the mission of providing compassionate, family centered, world-class pediatric care, working to restore children and adolescents to health so that they can return to their everyday activities as soon as possible.
Meet our hero - Shannon Sonnhalter
Last year, child life specialists across the country celebrated the 30-year anniversary of their growing profession, which is still considered a relatively small field comprised of approximately six-thousand caregivers in larger U.S. hospitals and health systems.
“We’re translators,” says Shannon Sonnhalter, Director of Child Life at Cleveland Clinic Children’s and a child life specialist of 17 years. “Hospitals are large; the experiences there can be scary and stressful, so we help parents and children to navigate this unknown territory. We help translate medical terminology into layman’s terms and we empower people to establish an element of control when so much seems out of their hands.”
When Shannon was a child, this group of caregivers dedicated to supporting families throughout a hospital stay was nonexistent.
“I was 10 and my brother was eight, and he broke his leg in a bicycle accident,” Shannon recalls. Her brother’s injury was severe, and as a result, he was hospitalized for six weeks with his leg in traction, suspended in a splint above him as he laid in bed.
“My mother had to stay at home with three small kids and my father, a firefighter, was at work the majority of the time. So that left my brother, hospitalized at eight in a non-pediatric unit, to fend for himself. This was before the days of family-centered care, and parents were not allowed to stay the night with their child, accompany them to the OR, or visit them in recovery post-surgery.”
Bored and lonely, Shannon’s brother called home often and at all hours of the night, even dialing his father at the fire station.
Shannon first heard of the Child Life profession a decade after her brother’s experience when she was studying early childhood education at Bowling Green State University. A classmate of hers in the nursing program mentioned it to her, and she switched majors immediately to chart a new course with a degree in Child Life.
“My first thought was of my brother in the hospital — teary at night, alone in a big, dark hospital room,” Shannon says.
Today, Shannon runs the Child Life Program of 10 specialists at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, but she has not left teaching far behind.
“Child Life specialists really are ‘hospital teachers,’” Shannon says. “We help children understand a diagnosis, a treatment process or a surgical procedure and we help the whole family to feel empowered to ask questions about their medical care.”
Inspired by her own family, today Shannon works effortlessly to provide compassionate care to everyone who comes through the doors of Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
Read About Our Past Heroes
Every year on July 6, Breanna Sprenger celebrates her birthday the same way: She asks her parents to take her to Cleveland Clinic to visit certified nurse practitioner Lucy Andrews-Mann.
The outgoing fifth-grader had 16 surgeries at Cleveland Clinic, and Ms. Andrews-Mann was there for most of them.
Between the surgeries and her doctor’s appointments, 10-year-old Breanna has spent a good portion of her life at Cleveland Clinic, zipping around in her wheelchair, enjoying the company of specialists from Child Life Services and searching for therapy dogs to pet. “It’s her second home,” says her mom, Carrie Sprenger.
Breanna is equally at home in a swimming pool. In February, Breanna won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in backstroke and freestyle swimming at the Jimi Flowers Classic Disability Swim Meet, held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Paralympics, was Breanna’s first. Her performance qualified her for the Paralympic trials this summer in Bismarck, N.D.
Breanna was born without legs and with just one arm. She swims by moving her entire torso, dolphinlike. “People should know, don’t ever underestimate a person that has a disability,” she says. “Because they will prove you wrong.”
Poised and precocious, Breanna says her goals in life are “to be an Olympic swimmer, to be a Child Life specialist for Cleveland Clinic Children’s, to find a cure for cancer.”
Her determination has been evident since the very beginning: Breanna wasn’t expected to survive. Prenatal tests showed that she had numerous lifethreatening problems that included a hole in her heart and another in her brain, and she appeared to be missing a stomach as well, though that later proved incorrect. A spontaneous vascular interruption at five or six weeks of pregnancy had interfered with Breanna’s development.
Breanna’s mirthful laugh bubbles up from deep within her. She enjoys her life and “all the great people that are in it,” she says. Among those great people are her mother; her father, John Sprenger; and, even though she rolls her eyes in typical big-sister fashion, her siblings, Paighten, 7, and Chase, 5.
Forever the entertainer — she loves cheerleading and playing in the school band — Breanna was in her element when she appeared onstage with Delos M. Cosgrove, MD, CEO and President of Cleveland Clinic during part of his recent State of the Clinic address. The physicians and other caregivers in the audience gave her a standing ovation, which, says Breanna, made her happy.
It made her mom cry. “It was very emotional for me as a mother,” says Carrie. “I could see out in the auditorium her doctors … her surgeons … Lucy. I was bawling.”
So what advice does Breanna have for other children?
Ms. Andrews-Mann remembers Breanna at a mere 4 years old, “negotiating with me about doing something,” the nurse practitioner says. “She is becoming a lovely young woman with all the traits you hope for: strength, determination and a love for living. She is a force to be reckoned with!”
“You may have cancer. Don’t let it have you. NEVER, EVER let it have you.”
Bold words from a self-assured 14-year-old patient, Riley Pearson. They are the opening lines of a booklet called “Home Sweet Hospital” that Riley wrote — and now hands out to other patients requiring extended stays at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
Riley was diagnosed with a cancerous bone tumor in her left leg and knee in December 2010. She underwent a yearlong course of inpatient chemotherapy and eight surgeries. Her grandmother bought her soft purple and lime-green sheets to use while in the hospital.
“Riley wheeled in big suitcases for every admission, one of which was filled with her own bedding,” says Sarah Thompson, a Child Life specialist at Children’s. “It made her more comfortable throughout her hospitalizations.” During her final week of chemotherapy, the enterprising teenager had an idea: She would provide a package with bedding, a dream catcher, soft tissues, lip balm and a “survival guide” for older children and teens facing long hospital stays.
“Home Sweet Hospital” is divided into four sections: you, family, faith and hospitals. It’s filled with no-nonsense advice. “Don’t expect your brothers and sisters to stay home and do nothing because you are sick. … If you never prayed before, God won’t be upset if now is the first time. … If you want something from a nurse, ask for it. They cannot read your mind.”
Riley’s goal was to pass along tips, not inspirational messages. “You get thrown into everything so fast,” says Riley. “I thought if kids had something that explained what they would face, it would make things a bit easier.” Her messages resonate with patients and families: Ms. Thompson says the mother of one of her patients recently expressed gratitude for the perspective Riley shares in the booklet.
“Hang in there,” Riley writes. “This will all be a memory for you one day and the memories aren’t all bad.” Her gift helps ensure that.
Lynn Pontius calls her daughter Meadow “the feel-good medical story of the year.”
During a routine wellness examination, Deborah Lonzer, MD, Chair of the Department of Community Pediatrics for Cleveland Clinic Children’s, detected a murmur while listening to Meadow Pontius’ heart. That catch by Dr. Lonzer’s trained ear led to the diagnosis of a congenital cardiac anomaly and potentially lifesaving open-heart surgery.
And to think, says Lynn Pontius, she almost didn’t take Meadow to Dr. Lonzer. The Pontius family relies on a general practitioner near their Ashtabula, Ohio, home for medical care. But at the insistence of a friend, Mrs. Pontius made an appointment for her daughter with Dr. Lonzer at the Willoughby Hills Family Health Center before Meadow started kindergarten last fall. It was a 45-minute drive to the appointment — a trip Mrs. Pontius is forever grateful she made.
“I was impressed right off the bat because Dr. Lonzer talked directly to Meadow and was very thorough,” says Mrs. Pontius. Dr. Lonzer asked about Meadow’s family and social history before moving on to the physical exam. Halfway through, she listened to Meadow’s heart and heard the murmur. “There are lots of murmurs that kids have that are normal,” says Dr. Lonzer. “I knew this one was not normal, and I wanted Meadow to see a cardiologist.”
Pediatric cardiologist Kenneth Zahka, MD, conducted an echocardiogram and diagnosed Meadow’s sinus venosus atrial septal defect. The 5-year-old had a hole in the membrane between her atria — the chambers that receive blood back into the heart. In addition, the pulmonary veins that return oxygen to her heart were in the wrong place. The condition placed an extra load on Meadow’s heart, which could eventually cause heart rhythm and function problems. Dr. Zahka recommended surgery.
On Aug. 15, 2011, a surgical team at Cleveland Clinic Children’s repaired Meadow’s heart. “Three weeks after the initial exam by Dr. Lonzer, the Cleveland Clinic team had worked their magic!” says Mrs. Pontius. “We now have a child with a normal heart, and Meadow can expect a long and healthy life.”
Helping patients like Meadow is the most rewarding part of Dr. Lonzer’s 19-year career as a pediatrician. “The connections I make with patients are special,” she says. “I don’t feel like someone’s doctor; I feel like an ancillary family member.”
Mrs. Pontius would agree. She heaps praise on everyone at Children’s, from doctors to nursing assistants to Child Life specialists. “When it comes to care,” says Mrs. Pontius, “Cleveland Clinic is absolutely unsurpassed.”